Duck, duck, Brolga, duck

Almost every day in October for the past 33 years, Richard Kingsford has climbed into the passenger seat of a single-engine Cessna to count the waterbirds of eastern Australia. The aircraft buzzes the wetlands from 50 metres above the ground while Kingsford, the director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales, barks into a recorder the numbers and species of startled ducks and other waterfowl – herons, ibis, spoonbills, cormorants and magpie geese.

It’s one of the largest and longest-running fauna surveys in the world, with Kingsford racking up 100 hours of flying time over 2000 wetlands across Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Each of the 10 transects are 30 kilometres wide. The northernmost, Band 10, runs from the Whitsunday Islands all the way to the Queensland–Northern Territory border. Band one extends from Seaspray, in Victoria’s far east, to Warrnambool.

The reason for covering such a huge area, Kingsford says, is because “nobody owns the ducks”. In a land of droughts and flooding rains, waterbirds fly enormous distances in rapid response to the prevailing conditions: the ducks of Victoria are as likely to turn up in the Lake Eyre Basin or north Queensland. In dry years, most of the birds are sucked southwards, into the perennial Victorian swamps that provide refuge as the lakes and lagoons of northern and central Australia evaporate.

Those Victorian wetlands are currently host to a bottleneck of hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, locked in by the strongest El Niño in nearly a decade. In the last drought of 2008 and 2009, the Labor government led by Steve Bracks called off the annual duck season. Today, however, the state’s 26,000 licensed hunters are being actively encouraged into those wetlands by Premier Daniel Andrews and the minister for agriculture, Jaala Pulford, for the opening of this year’s 12-week shoot.

It’s a contentious call, because Kingsford’s most recent survey data – distributed annually to the state governments of Victoria, South Australia, NSW and Queensland – recorded several historic lows. The Wetland Index, representing total available habitat, was the lowest on record, as was the total waterbird count. Game duck abundance was the second lowest on record, at just 30 per cent of the long-term average. There was little evidence of breeding.

And the long-term trend across 33 years is inexorably downwards. “We’re looking at 60 per cent-plus declines in total numbers,” Kingsford says.

While the decision has angered segments of the Victorian ALP, Greg Barber, the leader of the Victorian Greens, says the party is running scared of the hunting lobby. “A lot of shooters are blue-collar boys who typically would vote Labor, except they’re scared about the socialists coming to take their guns away,” he claims. “And so there’s been a long-term project in Victoria by the Labor Party to woo the shooters back into the fold.”

Pulford’s office did not respond to inquiries from The Saturday Paper. She has previously stated that hunting, while “not everyone’s cup of tea”, was an important recreational activity that contributed close to $440 million to local economies each year, supporting more than 3000 jobs. Barber scoffs at the figures, which he says assume the money wouldn’t be spent at all if it couldn’t be blown on a weekend killing native wildlife.

Labor’s decision to go ahead with this year’s hunt was based on advice from the Game Management Authority (GMA), established in 2014 by the former Liberal government led by Denis Napthine. Based on Kingsford’s report, the authority recommended that bag limits be reduced: hunters are allowed to take eight birds on opening day, down from 10, and four birds, down from five, on every day thereafter. One of the eight usual game species, the Shoveler, has been excluded due to its low numbers.

Barber has accused the GMA – which is chaired by former National Party leader Roger Hallam and includes on its nine-member board two former senior office holders with Field and Game Australia – of being a taxpayer-funded front for the hunting lobby. Minutes obtained by the Greens under freedom of information show that the authority’s CEO, Greg Hyams, wrote to Victoria Police after hunters complained about their treatment by officers. The minutes also recommended a review of all game reserves “to determine by exception why all legal game and best animals cannot be hunted”.

Barber says this shows the authority was promoting hunting, in conflict with its statutory role as a regulator. A spokesperson for the GMA rejects this, saying functions conferred to the authority include, but are not limited to, promoting sustainability and responsibility in hunting, and that all activities are conducted in accordance with its legislative powers.

The GMA also received submissions from Field and Game Australia, which has called for a five-year moratorium on further restrictions on hunting. General manager David McNabb said that this would “standardise the inputs” in order to get a clearer picture of the actual impact of duck hunting. “The critical issue is habitat and access to habitat,” he says, “which all people interested in conservation of wetlands and management of our native wildlife have an interest in.”

In other words, duck hunting has negligible impact on duck numbers. “Our ducks have this fantastic survival instinct, and when there’s good weather events that create nice new habitat, they’ll get up and move and they’ll use their wings to be able to do that.” McNabb says Kingsford’s survey is “a good dataset for what it is, but it’s not comprehensive”. Field and Game Australia has called for Kingsford’s survey to be extended to the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and uncovered areas of South Australia.

Public opinion is not on the hunting lobby’s side. Polls have consistently shown that the majority of Victorians want duck shooting banned. Trust is also low after a notorious incident at Box Flat, near the township of Boort, on the opening of duck season in 2013. On that occasion more than 1000 birds, many of which were not ducks at all, were killed in a free-for-all involving up to 150 hunters. No one was charged; a heavily redacted government report indicated all present had closed ranks.

BirdLife Australia, which has condemned the decision to go ahead with this year’s hunt, has expressed concern that the state’s small population of Brolga could be caught in the crossfire of opening weekend. Pulford responded: “I don’t think there’s any risk of any hunter mistaking a Brolga with a duck.” No one accused those present at Box Flat of mistaking the local ibis, swans, grebes, avocets and egrets for ducks, either.

The GMA said duck shooting was a legitimate recreational activity with a long history in Victoria, and it brought benefits to regional towns and communities. It said it worked collaboratively with Victoria Police and undertook intelligence-driven compliance operations to apprehend illegal shooters. “We seek to promote sustainable and safe practices,” a spokesperson said, “and help ensure that the laws of the state are being respected by all.”

The Game Management Authority estimates the total harvest from the 2015 season, based on hunter diaries, was 203,934 ducks – 53 per cent of the long-term average of 382,447. An estimated 80,610 were shot on opening weekend. But those figures do not include illegally killed non-game species, the injured, or birds that could not be recovered. Richard Kingsford said the majority of ducks killed are juveniles, victims of their own inexperience.

“You’ve got a lot of adult birds just trying to hang on, and not a lot of fat,” he says. “We’ve got declining populations anyway, so it would be prudent to try to hold off in these dry times. It worries me, because part of this is about the long-term sustainability of duck hunting. They’re shooting themselves in the foot, if you like, by getting stuck into the capital.”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 19 March 2016

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